Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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28/09/05 - Theatre & comedy section

Look back in pleasure

By Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard

Masochists like me, who love being plunged into suburban family life of the Fifties, when prissiness was all the rage and sex, drugs and rock'n'roll were out of bounds, should have real fun with Epitaph For George Dillon.

The wicked pleasures of snobbery are invited by the sight and sound of suburbanites basking in smugness and hideous hats, with lurid furnishings and sweet Muzak on the radiogram. Even Francesca Annis's Ruth, the bright, Communist member of the family who went to university, achieves a memorable dowdiness before blossoming into lipstick after winning a kiss from Dillon, a man young enough to be her son.

John Gunter's awesome stage set is a little monument to bad taste. How comic the patter of people speaking what sounds like Fifties soap operatics! "I can only say that college gave you a lot of funny ideas," Anne Reid's superlative, vacuously twittering materfamilias accuses her sister: there is more than a touch of Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn about these characters.

Written by John Osborne, in collaboration with his secret, gay lover Anthony Creighton, before the playwright found fame with Look Back In Anger and mainly tuned into heterosexuality, the play works as an amusing satire at the expense of the manners and morals of the lower middle-class Elliot family.

Into their grey habitat unbelievably comes as tenant a bohemian young actor/ playwright, George Dillon. Joseph Fiennes, whose flamboyant good looks make him strange casting for the role of the unsuccessful, less than attractive Dillon, rather resembles the young Osborne. This is surely intended.

I guess that Creighton wrote most of the family scenes, while George's self-pitying diatribes and addresses to Ruth, although they lack the vituperative lash and dash of the socially aware Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger, are Osborne's work.

The play's small idea is to show how opportunist George - a stand-in for Osborne in his days as a failed actor - becomes a victim of the wicked show business world and life itself. He wins no leading roles. He succumbs to TB and is revealed as a man with a past.

He even has the bad sense to impregnate young Josie, whom Zoe Tapper hilariously plays as a girl with a mind too dim to be described as her own. The serious play Dillon writes has to be tarted up to achieve a tour, arranged by a farcically-caricatured producer figure.

I find it difficult to take all this seriously and Fiennes, who adopts a tone of self-mocking theatricality, understandably fails to muster much anger or convey serious self-hatred. Why anyway should the authors incite us to regret that Dillon is only good for self-pity - and self-dramatisation? "I attract hostility. I'm on heat for it," he says.

A sub-plot emerges when George feels the hots for Ruth. Miss Annis, impressively bathed in melancholia and bleak disillusion, tries to fire him with the energy to leave the drab household into which he has come as a substitute for Mrs Elliot's dead son.

Their flickering relationship, though, needs sexing up and Miss Annis's laughter over Dillon's play-acting antics sound forced rather than appreciative. Peter Gill, unmatched as a social-realist director, powerfully stages the play as an alluring period piece. He cannot though, give it the trappings of seminal drama.

©2005 Associated New Media

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